Friday, January 24, 2014

Musical Journeys - London Road & From Here to Eternity - Musical Reviews

London Road - Canadian Stage at Bluma Apel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - Toronto, ON - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
By Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork, Directed by Jackie Maxwell
Runs until Feb. 9th 2014

From Here to Eternity: The Musical - Shaftesbury Theatre - West End - London, UK - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music by Stuart Brayson, Lyrics by Tim Rice, Book by Bill Oakes based on the book by James Jones, Directed by Tamara Harvey
Runs until Mar. 29th 2014

Two new musicals out of London, one an innovative new take on the traditional musical, using interview verbatim as its lyrical source, and setting music to punctuate and highlight the spoken source, London Road is often clever and always thought provoking. A new musicalized version of From Here to Eternity harks back to musicals of yesteryears via its source, but with its pop score and traditional staging, it is a big mainstream show that it yearns to be. Both are entertaining in their respective aspects, but flawed in their own ways that may be inherently built into their goals.


London Road is a fascinating experiment in musical theatre first become a hit at the National Theatre in London, and now making its North American premiere at Canadian Stage. Using interviews with the townsfolk of Ipswich verbatim, the musical chronicles a small British town as they deal with the murders of five prostitutes. Think of it as a Laramie Project set to music. The musical score by Adam Cork was composed to Alecky Blythe's interviews with the residents of London Road and the added musicalization is a beautifully artistic way to highlight, and reimagine and examine the community's reaction to a grizzly and horrifying event. It's an interesting combination with innovative possibilities, but the effort does not always work. When it does, it is quite an interesting way to underline key moments, ideas and thoughts about the case and the community's reactions. It brings journalistic theatre to an operatic level, and if only the words of the residents had been a bit more revealing, it might have had a far bigger impact.

Using musics repetitive nature, lyrics were often repeated, and while the effect can be illuminating, or used in a humorous way, like emphasizing the "umms" and "yeahs" punctuates speech, at times, became ineffective in its overuse. There's a lot of fascinating moments during the residents' awkward attempts at normalizing after the discovery of the murders, and their suspicions and fears as the police try to capture the killer, but it is not until the second act when some prostitutes get their (musical) moment when things become truly chilling and the verbatim structure has its most impact. There's another small moment when another resident reveals her true feelings about the victims but it is surprisingly not mined for its dark nature that the show could have gone deeper with. For a show about murders, it felt relatively safe, calm and uplifting for much of it (though partly because of beautiful uplifting flower song that returns but then overstays a its welcome a tad too long).


Despite the fascinating flaws with the piece itself, the Canadian all-star theatre cast was one to behold. From Fiona Reid to Ben Carlson to Sean Arbuckle and Shawn Wright to Julain Molnar and George Masswohl and Michelle Fisk to Steve Ross. It's a whose who and the talented cast play the numerous characters with heart and humanity and while the piece at times is built to poke fun of these regular folks, the cast never lets them become caricatures. And from the impressive cast, Damien Atkins continues his impressive streak here while Deborah Hay illuminates the stage and demonstrates why she's the toast of the Shaw Festival.

Jackie Maxwell directs the cast through the various vignettes with maximum efficiency, and although while there are a few moments I found slightly static, there are other brilliant moments (like the use of police tape cutting thru the stage) that require minimal movement for maximum resonating effect. I loved the idea of the set, with literal strips of yellow highlight along the shades of black set pieces, sliding and rotating amongst an image of London Road, though the designer in me would have tweaked the set in slight ways to give more intimacy to the used stage.

There is so much to admire about London Road and its innovative musical concept and hearing the rhythms of regular British folk speaking. While the overall emotional resonance doesn't quite hit its potential high, partly because we still learn very little about the actual victims or the caught killer, the show is a intriguing experiment that is never boring, and with a superb Canadian cast at their very best.


From Here to Eternity: The Musical is based on the novel (which got turned into the movie with the famous beach scene) that I actually haven't read, and so I didn't know if the musical changed all that much from the novel or the film, but I was surprised at how much darker and complex the story was. I was expecting (and secretly hoping for) a big cheesy romantic sweeping old-style musical, and it was a big mainstream old style musical in many ways, but the musical book kept the main characters flawed and 3-dimensional with some morally questionable actions, but it definitely added some depth into what felt like a lowbrow version of South Pacific (and to be honest, may be more my cup of tea).


With a musical score with a pop feel to it, it's catchy to make it a big mainstream musical and that keeps it from being taken too seriously, but I rather enjoyed the songs. With an impressive ensemble, the songs sounded great, and the dark tone of the story kept the musical in balance of romantic cheese and serious melodrama. Robert Lonsdale and Siubhan Harrison (above) turn in star-making performances, with the handsome Lonsdale giving a complex and unwaveringly moralistically dubious turn as Private Prewitt, a new addition to the regiment who refuses to use his talents for the sake of furthering his career.

Darius Campbell sounds terrific in his baritone voice as the Warden, and has a commanding and old school presence perfect with the time period and his partner Rebecca Thornhill is lovely as Karen.

Marc Antolin, understudying the role of Private Angelo, was particularly impressive and gives a deep and emotionally complex performance as the happy-go-lucky Angelo whose life takes a turn after innuendos and mistakes are made.

Tamara Harvey makes efficient use of the beautiful set by Soutra Gilmour and the choreography by Javier du Sutros works wonderfully in setting up the tone. While From Here To Eternity doesn't change musical theatre in any innovative way, it still manages to deepen the depth of the story within a mainstream feeling musical without losing any of the entertainment value.

Photos of London Road by David Hou
Photos of From Here to Eternity: The Musical by John Persson
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